Employee stress is at an all-time high as we move into 2021. Whether workers were affected by the pandemic firsthand or not, health and economic concerns took on new urgency throughout 2020. In the new year, much remains the same. Public health is still a top concern, and economic uncertainty is prompting many businesses to pivot, creating anxiety among workers at all levels.

Some people have been hit harder psychologically than others, but national numbers are showing a trend toward higher stress and burnout levels in general, with 65% of employees reporting that poor mental health is taking a toll on their job performance and 40% experiencing burnout. And people without past mental health issues have shown a more significant uptick in depression and anxiety symptoms than those with preexisting disorders. If businesses don’t want to see performance dip and employees suffer, it’s essential that they take action to become part of the mental health solution.

Effect of declining mental health on businesses

Poor mental health has a significant impact on U.S. businesses in the form of increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and overall healthcare costs.

Mental healthcare provider Lyra Health and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions noted in their 2020 report “American Worker in Crisis” that mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the country, accounting for some 217 million days of lost work annually.

Businesses are certainly aware of this issue. According to a recent Business Group on Health survey, some 47% of large employers are now training managers on recognizing mental health issues, and an additional 18% are planning to do so in 2021. Still, the Lyra survey revealed that 40% of employees don’t think their employer cares about their mental health.

What are common signs of employee mental health issues?

Mental illness was already on the rise in the U.S. prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 19% of Americans suffering from mental illness in 2018. There are many types of mental illness, but the three most common types affecting Americans are anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. Given recent survey results, it’s incumbent on employers, HR managers and team leaders to be aware of symptoms and how they can show up in the workplace.

Depression symptoms

The Mayo Clinic describes depression as a condition that causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest. General signs of depression to look for include:

  1. Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  2. Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  3. Tiredness or lack of energy
  4. Insomnia or sleeping too much

Anxiety symptoms

While certain events can trigger anxiety in almost anyone, general anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined by these and other symptoms, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

  1. Feeling nervous, irritable, or on edge
  2. Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  3. Having an increased heart rate
  4. Breathing rapidly, sweating or trembling

Bipolar disorder symptoms

Major depression affects about 7.1% of Americans, while 31.6% of Americans experience anxiety disorders at some point in their lives. In contrast, bipolar disorder affects just 1.8% of people in the U.S. The following are its primary symptoms:

  1. Drastic mood changes exhibiting abnormal behavior
  2. Marked shift in energy levels
  3. Unusual increase in speech and activity
  4. Exaggerated sense of well-being or confidence

What to look for in workers

The International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans offers indicators of possible mental health issues in employees:

  • An employee who isn’t prone to crying becomes quick to tear up
  • A worker seems to be moving slowly and exhibiting unusual tiredness
  • A team member is withdrawing socially, or increasingly clashing with others
  • An employee looks confused or can’t seem to make decisions
  • A worker starts making frequent mistakes or missing deadlines

Managers or HR admins who see these behaviors in workers should ask about an employee’s wellbeing and make sure they are aware of services available to them.

How to address and prevent employee mental illness

Full-time employees spend most of their waking hours on the job—which means employers have plenty of opportunity to affect their charges’ mental wellbeing. Below are key ways employers can help support mental health.

Encourage full use of paid time off and sick days.

Forbes contributor and author Bryan Robinson, PhD asserts that this is the best way to foster mental health among workers, but notes that it isn’t being done enough. Nearly 30% of the employees surveyed by Skynova in late 2020 said their holiday time-off was more restricted by employers than in past years, and 40% of employees who planned to work over the holidays said they were afraid of falling behind if they took vacation days.

Break the silence surrounding mental health.

The Lyra study revealed that one in ten employees said they’d been thinking of harming themselves or others, and 47% said they had received no words of support from employers in recent months. Mental illness can become deadly. Open communication about mental health, especially from company leaders, helps remove the stigma from the topic so that workers feel less shame discussing their struggles, and are more apt to seek help.

Practice compassionate leadership.

Scott Shute of LinkedIn has said this can come in the form of creating no-meeting days, or establishing discussion groups about mindfulness and burnout. As Kim Nguyen of software firm Alloy puts it, “Empathy and humanity should always be prioritized.” A direct approach some experts recommend is to ask employees regularly how they are holding up.

Offer health benefits.

Businesses that offer health benefits show they value employees’ wellbeing. Benefit plans covered under the Affordable Care Act all include mental health and substance abuse counseling as part of their essential services. Here are a few specific benefits-related considerations:

Include an employee assistance program (EAP) in your offering.

Typically costing around $20 a year per employee, EAPs are usually offered together with health insurance and provide free, confidential counseling to any employee in work-related or personal distress. With EAPs, employees can simply pick up the phone rather than researching the right therapist, making an appointment or worrying about copays. EAPs offer a limited number of sessions, but their counselors can refer employees to continued therapy if necessary.

Ensure your benefits offerings are easily accessible to employees.

When employees have to rifle through reams of paperwork to register for benefits, or seek out an HR representative with every question, they may be deterred from signing up or using their health benefits—especially if they’re already feeling anxious or depressed. Benefits management software provides an employee portal where workers can log in to compare and choose healthcare plans, check on coverage details, and more.

Cloud-based benefits management software simplifies benefits administration for both HR and employees by moving open enrollment to the cloud, so HR managers have no paperwork to distribute and collect. They also allow for employee self-service of their benefits without HR’s continual involvement. When HR admins aren’t buried in paperwork, they have more time to reach out to employees individually, too, or coordinate messaging of concern from company leaders.

Supporting mental health among your workers is essential to reducing absenteeism and maintaining productivity. Open and direct messaging from leadership about mental illness and the availability of help is a great way to show support. However, it’s important that employers also walk the walk by offering employees health benefits, and allowing ease of access through benefits management software to ensure there are no barriers to use.

Get in touch with us today to learn more about Arcoro’s streamlined benefits management software. It’s easy for both HR and employees to use, and lets employees access and manage their benefits information from anywhere.